Team Standard: Exploring Heartbeat Combo

While playing Heartbeat Combo, Mike’s teammate has only lost a single match over two PTQ appearances. In today’s article, Mike analyzes the deck and updates it for the evolving Team Standard metagame… including sideboard advice and play tips!

[Part 1] [Part 2]

If you tuned in Tuesday, you know that our team’s initial configuration was supposed to be me on Combo Deck, Paul Jordan on Vore, and the tactical Steve Sadin on Gruul Deck Wins. The only problem with that layout was that Gruul Deck Wins never, um, wins against key matchup Ghost Dad… and the pesky fact that Paul hated Vore and refused to play it. So basically, all systems were, um, stop.

About the same time that I was putting together my local/physical team, my online team grew by new members Alex Lieberman and Antonino De Rosa. All of us seemed to like Maximilian Bracht’s Heartbeat deck from Pro Tour Honolulu, and I even went so far as to say he had the best sideboard in the Top 8 next to Osyp. So I was pretty surprised to come back from my week-and-a-half in paradise to find emails from Andrew and Osyp saying that they didn’t like Bracht’s sideboard. Osyp thought Heartbeat was great… Andrew clarified by saying that he didn’t think that you were going to get a lot of chips with Vinelasher Kudzu.

The initial fine tuning came from Osyp:

As you can see, Osyp’s maindeck varied from Bracht’s very little. This isn’t surprising, considering that Heartbeat is a combo deck and most of the slots (Heartbeat, Harvest, Drift, and so on) are written in stone. His swaps were basically -1 Boomerang (ironically Josh missed Day 2 on the one Boomerang, having left one land and multiple Signets up) and -1 Compulsive Research for +1 Rampant Growth and +1 Savage Twister.

Ant made the startling observation “When I was testing Heartbeat before Hawaii, the best cards in the deck were Gigadrowse and Train of Thought. Why did the guy play neither of them?” This led me to the swap of -1 Rampant Growth for +1 Train of Thought, and we were off to the best version of the main… even if it was only two cards different from everybody else’s.

There are many reasons why a single Train of Thought is optimal in the maindeck. In a pinch, it is more-or-less the same card as Rampant Growth. Are you happy with burning your Train that way? Of course not. You don’t even get to put the land in play. But it fits the mana and lets you justify a relatively weak two-land hand the same way, especially on the draw. Going long, Train of Thought is just much better than Compulsive Research. Against control decks, it is almost the ultimate card to play if you want to guarantee you will win an attrition war. Against B/W Rats, it is one of the only cards that can pull you out of a multiple discard deficit profitably, and generally speaking, if you cast it, you not only win, but avalanche the opponent. Most important for the purpose of teams, Train of Thought just isn’t Compulsive Research; this is important considering that all copies of that card were busy keeping four slots warm in our Vore deck.

The sideboard changed organically. Osyp had Time of Need for synergy with Muddle the Mixture, but in testing, I found that I was often out of Legends late game, stuck with these stupid Time of Need cards in my hand. We came to the agreement that it would be better to just play more Legends, and that way, we at least spent 3/4 of our Melokus. Different camps on our list ran different numbers on the big guys, but we ultimately conformed to Alex’s configuration, based on his fourteen or so consecutive 8-man wins.

Here is the deck Paul ended up playing in the March 25 PTQ in Connecticut:

I actually got in a long discussion with Lieberman – US Nationals phenom and the Heartbeat pilot on the Grand Prix team – about the number of Naturalizes in the sideboard. He was siding three in against G/R to answer Jitte and Moldervine Cloak when he transformed. I came up with the stellar argument that if you are transforming anyway, Jitte is Seal of Cleansing against their Jitte (same as Naturalize… who cares about 2-4 life points?). If they don’t have an enhancer, Naturalize lies useless in your hand, whereas you kill them with your Jitte if you have it. This convinced Alex.

Ultimately, it was also fortunate that we went to the 2/1 model because the Combo Deck that Josh and I played ran two Naturalizes in the sideboard and there is no guarantee any of us would have figured out the conflict.

In startling opposition to his experiences with Vore, Paul really liked Heartbeat.

“Testing with the Vore deck was annoying because I guess I really didn’t have a good feel for how to play it and only played against Gruul and Zoo, so I lost frequently. I didn’t have Hammers at the time because they were in our other deck, so that made the Zoo matchup much worse.

“When I tested with the Heartbeat deck, I began to get a feel for when you could go off (five lands if holding a Harvest, six if you have to Tutor for it), how much damage my opponent could do, etc. In general, you didn’t need to do much math. Unlike most combo decks, if you start going you’ll finish going off. The only time you don’t is if you started before you should have (see Week Two, Round Two, Game 1 – I went off against a discard deck knowing I’d only knock him to three, but he had a Bob out and I had a 13/13).”

Paul lost to Heezy Street in the first round of the March 25 PTQ… and never lost again.

Let me make this clear: Heartbeat is the best deck in the format. I don’t know if it’s the best deck in Standard, but it is a powerhouse in Team Trios. In an ordinary Standard environment, you can play whatever deck you want based on your personal notion of the metagame, how you can get an edge, or just whatever deck you’ve mistaken for your girlfriend. In teams, though, there is a much narrower metagame where card quality becomes much more important and archetypes become distinct very quickly based on whatever The Other players are running. For example, in some strange environment it might be right to play a Mono-Green Winter Orb deck that isn’t ahead of anything except for Necropotence main – but thrashes Necropotence – because such a huge percentage of the expected tournament is Necropotence it is your maximum EV bet. This will never be right in even a parallel Necropotence-dominated Team Standard format, because a maximum of one in three of your opponents will be that dominating Necropotence deck (meaning that the hate deck will put your team behind 2/3 of the time).

In a format where two out of three players are not playing what their camp thinks is the best deck, the power of card quality – especially card quality spread across the three decks – becomes even more important than usual.

Look at the Heartbeat deck. It has all three of the best cards of Pro Tour Philadelphia last year: Sakura-Tribe Elder, Kodama’s Reach, and Sensei’s Divining Top. It has literally the best threats in the format: Keiga, Meloku, and Umezawa’s Jitte. Not only can it out-counter the counter decks (even most decks with more counters than Heartbeat don’t have sufficient mana to play those counters in a relevant window of time), it plays specifically Remand, a boon to combination decks in general due to that whole “draw a card” clause, not to mention being the #3 card on the Japanese Standard card valuation list.

Put simply, Heartbeat is ahead against almost every known deck in the format Game 1 (the three-in-ten stats that Combo Deck put out were on the high end in our testing). As with the other decks in our lineup, Heartbeat always puts away Ghost Dad, meaning that against teams with Ghost Council of Orzhova, only Steve or I would have to win in order to get a victory. Heartbeat is way ahead against the U/R decks, and not even genuinely behind against Heezy Street; all in all, the deck has a roughly 5/6 shot of earning against the Week 1 defaults.

Our sideboarding strategy is pretty boring. According to Paul, “Against creatures or disruption, you transform; against counters, you bring in Gigadrowse.” Interestingly, Paul didn’t consider Ghost Dad a legitimate “creature” deck and didn’t respect the three Cranial Extractions that deck might bring in to warrant full transformation every time; in roughly half of his sideboarded games, Paul just Remanded the same Cranial Extraction two or three times while ramping his mana, knowing the opponent wasn’t doing anything worthwhile. Generally speaking, Paul transformed against Ghost Dad only if he thought the opponent was taking out all his anti-creature cards, and just maintained his overwhelming Game 1 margins if he thought the opponent was keeping in his Pillories and so on. Note that you can’t really play this way against Hand in Hand or Diezel B/W aggressors… Their disruption costs half as much as Ghost Dad‘s and hence resolves more consistently; Osyp built the Meloku/Dragon sideboard specifically to beat these opponents.

For our second PTQ, Paul made the following changes:

Main deck:
-1 Recollect
+1 Boomerang

-1 Savage Twister
+1 Gigadrowse

His reasoning was that he never cast Recollect in seven played matches and sideboarded it out regardless of if he were against control or was transforming; three Savage Twisters boarded was excessive with Ryusei and Umezawa’s Jitte… Despite beating control decks repeatedly in the first PTQ, Paul never actually drew Gigadrowse. His “three-drowse” version failed to draw that sideboard card – and win anyway – with equal consistency.

Match record:

R1: Heezy Street — Loss
R2: Ghost Dad — Win
R3: U/R — Win
R4: Greater Good — Win
R5: U/R — Win
R6: ID
R7: ID
Top 4 – Ghost Dad — Win
Top 2 — U/R – Win

R1: URzaTron – Win
R2: B/W Aggro – Win

Some final notes from Mr. Jordan:

“Favorite memories include when my (‘Tron) opponent had been representing Remand for the entire game. He finally tapped down to one Island and one Signet open; I had no counter backup, but a ton of lands. I went off, he Remanded Maga, so I replayed it.

“I lost Game 1 to a Greater Good deck for no other reason than I just didn’t know what it did… Very similar to my losing Game 1 to a High Tide deck at the Grand Prix because I didn’t know exactly what the kill mechanism was or that it could only go off on my turn. In both instances I won the match and knew how to play against them after watching them go off once.

“You can obviously use the ‘calculated risk’ incident as well…”

Basically, in the finals, Paul was down a game to a Wafo-Tapa control deck. He won Game 2, but was up against the wall in Game 3. I was busy misplaying against Andy Probasco, but I distinctly remember Paul’s opponent saying he was going to take a “calculated risk,” tapping out for Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind when he had a significant lead on the table. Paul had missed several land drops, made no relevant plays, and was stuck on lands until the opponent’s tapping for Meloku gave him the open to play Kodama’s Reach. When the opponent played Niv-Mizzet, Paul killed him because “most people don’t respect Heartbeat’s ability to go off, and don’t understand that if this deck starts to go off, it is going to finish.”

In another article, David Feinstein (Steve’s opponent in the finals) described the play thusly:

“I turn my attention to Harry and Paul, entering game 3. Paul had a terrible start of three Forests with no plays whatsoever. Harry taps out to cast Meloku. Paul untaps and plays Kodama’s Reach, finding an Island and a Swamp. He passes the turn leaving an Island up and four cards in hand.

“Alright, it’s time for you to tell me the correct play. Harry untaps and draws. His hand is Hinder, Niv-Mizzet, and three lands. Harry’s board is five lands and a Meloku. Harry swings with Meloku, dropping Paul to eighteen. He drops lands number six. That’s all the setup, now here’s the decision:

“Do you drop Niv-Mizzet, tapping out with Paul having five lands on board and four cards currently in hand, or do you pass the turn with one Hinder in hand, plus Meloku on board and six lands?

“Think about it, because it is literally a match-winning decision.


“Almost done?



“After conferring with Harry for a considerable amount of time, we both agreed the optimal play was tapping out to drop Niv-Mizzet. We did this because we know we need to apply pressure quickly, and the odds of him going off were slim at that point. It appeared he was still trying to recover from land screw. He also packs two Gigadrowse and four Muddle the Mixture post board, so playing the waiting game seems fruitless unless we know we’re drawing into more countermagic. Granted, we can represent multiples for at least a turn or two, but that’s just giving him setup time. With our play, if we are able to untap with Niv-Mizzet we pretty much win.

“Obviously, Paul draws his fifth card, and has the exact combination of cards to go off right then and there. We lose a heartbreaker, and then get trashed by some spectators.

“I still defend the play. His odds of going off that turn were slim. Paul commented that we should have just returned lands at the end of each of his turns, representing counter magic the whole time. The problem with that comes down to pressure. We can’t return enough lands to represent a fast enough racing clock, because if we return too many he’s able to go off at will. That leaves us with being forced to represent at least two hard counters while swinging for three or four every turn. This gives him up to four turns to setup and crush us with just one Gigadrowse or Muddle. By making the play we did, he’s under pressure to win three or four turns earlier. Granted, he did combo off, but I believe going with the play we did gave us more odds of winning the game.”

The problem with this scenario was that David represents that Paul had four cards, causing him to tell the readers that his changes of going off were “slim.” Paul had missed at least two land drops and resolved no spell until the Kodama’s Reach, which was after turn 5, and only when his opponent had given him the open by playing Meloku… Paul was on the draw. Feinstein even points out Paul had “no plays whatsoever.”

If Paul had both missed land drops and not made any plays, How in the world would he have only had four cards in hand?

For those of you laboring over yesterday’s Niv-Mizzet brainteaser, or “the calculated risk” as we’ve been calling it, this is what Paul has to say:

“His description is fine except for the fact that I had at least six cards because I baited him with an extra Heartbeat I didn’t need – it was gas when he countered that – but I’m pretty sure I had a full grip when he tapped out for that Dragon. If I wasn’t hitting land drops – but I had kept the draw – how bad could my hand have possibly been?”

Point being, if you are ahead, but you don’t respect Heartbeat, it pretty much just kills you.

I believe our version is a middling example of the best deck… because we have limited tech for the mirror. Because Heartbeat thrashes most of the other existing decks, winning the mirror becomes important in the same way that the Green swap or devoting an entire sideboard to the Furnace Dragon plan was right in Block and Standard Affinity, respectively. I’ll be frank: I don’t know how you would go about winning the mirror. None of the solutions seem very good to me. The options seem to be siding in Shadow of Doubt to “counter” Transmute and Kodama’s Reach, or transforming. In the Grand Prix, Alex lost to Vinelasher Kudzus… Our mailing list disliked the “default” (Bracht) Kudzus in the abstract, but the tempo they provide to a deck that can back up with counters and potentially part of a combo kill can’t really be argued. Our slower transformation with better, but glacial, threats is much worse in the mirror… You can see from the above how tapping for a six might not be the best plan when facing another Heartbeat deck, even when your lead is commanding.

Our current plan is to win with Gigadrowse. Gigadrowse can potentially lock down the opponent’s Blue mana as long as you have more Islands than he does, but the presence of Early Harvest makes this plan a lot worse. Like I said, despite the fact that we have basically the best main due to the presence of Train of Thought where other versions have none, and despite the fact that Heartbeat in general is ahead against the rest of the field, our lack of real tech for the mirror keeps it from being the unconditionally best version at present. Hopefully some genius will present a list that can maintain Heartbeat’s natural advantage against most other decks and provide a strategic suite for opposing degenerate combinations.

For those of you too lazy to do the two swaps described between the first and second weeks, here is the version of Heartbeat we are suggesting for Team Trios:

HOT TECH ALERT: Paul said that he liked drawing Carven Caryatid against beatdown – and that he drew it often, and in multiples – but he also said that he wanted another Naturalize. The maindeck Boomerang probably suffices, but another swap we considered was -1 Carven Caryatid, +1 Viridian Shaman. Viridian Shaman, as a three, lets you use a different Transmute card to find your artifact destruction, and in this case, one that you can grab with Weird Harvest to eliminate a pesky Pithing Needle on Drift of Phantasms mid-combo.